Become a Writer Advertise With Us

Europe According to Emma is a weekly column written by Emma Dell a University of Denver student currently studying abroad in Berlin, Germany. Read other installments here.


Germans are not notoriously whimsical people. They’re a little bit like the Russians, they get shot if they smile. (Miracle reference? Anyone? Nope, just me? Alright then.) I mean, this is a language that asks if you’re okay by asking instead if “everything is order.” Real warm, fuzzy people right there.

Which is why when they start joking with you in their native tongue, it goes from being difficult to understand to nearly impossible. Germans have a very dry sense of humor, which for a person who is still struggling to comprehend the language makes it incredibly difficult to distinguish from a normal, serious statement.

I am one of those people. Here are some times when I wish people hadn’t tried to lighten the conversation with a little humor, because I ended up very frazzled and not at all humored, and reasons why their jokes are sometimes just way too stressful to be funny.

German security guards are already really intimidating

On the way through the airport security line last week, I was wearing yoga pants (as always) because they’re comfortable for traveling, have no pockets that I can accidentally forget things in when I need to walk through the x-ray machine, and there’s absolutely no way to hide anything in them so I usually don’t need a pat down. I’ve got this travel fashion thing down to a science. Only missing element: any actual sense of fashion. Semantics. I’m a Colorado girl; we go for comfort.

So there I was, totally owning that security line because security lines are all the same (seriously people – they are so easy it’s silly, yet there is always someone who acts like it’s a foreign concept. Get it together, I’m sure you’ve done this before) and the German security guy says something about pockets, which is incidentally the same word as purse in German, making me think that I need to take something out of my purse for the scanner, and then goes to their little secret security guy station and comes back giggling with a box-cutter in his hand. A big, huge box-cutter.

It wasn’t until my fluent friend explained the joke to me that I started breathing normally again.

Apparently the German security man was just extra cheery that morning and wanted to joke with me about not having pockets in my yoga pants, and brought back a box-cutter so he could make me some. I did not get the joke. It did not make me giggle. You, sir, have stressed me out with your humor.

Accents in foreign languages are twice as hard to understand

Some of the people who love joking in German the most are the Turkish guys who work in the döner shops. They’re always nice and in fun moods, but trying to understand a Turkish-German accent is like trying to understand a really Irish person speak English. It’s basically like listening to another language. With the added bonus now that you actually are listening to another language, and now you’re even further removed from being able to understand anything.

Basically, I’m afraid to go in there by myself anymore because I’m scared of their jokes. Please just be serious and stoic, I will be much more comfortable with my minimal language skills. Stop enjoying your job.

Wit is quick, and I speak slowly

If anyone jokes with me in English, I can whip out comebacks like it’s nobody’s business. Use a big word at me and I’ll come back with one twice as big, because I spend too much time on instead of going outside. I may be pale, but I can describe my skin tone in a bunch of big words so who needs Vitamin D?

However, I don’t have this advantage in German. Instead, I speak so slowly that by the time I’ve begun to correctly formulate one sentence, the person I’m speaking with has already moved on to a new one. Which makes witty conversations basically impossible, because by the time I whip up (or slow-churn) a comeback, the other person has already made it through the whole conversation.

Comprehending makes me forget my own vocabulary

This makes it even more difficult to try and keep up with jokes or witty conversations, because I’m so busy trying to understand what the hell was just said to me that my brain says peace out to all but the most basic facets of my foreign vocabulary and even if I figure out what it was that I need to respond to, I have no idea how to respond.

I usually end up blubbering out some sort of kindergarten level German and hoping that the person understands when I switch to English halfway through my effort. Which, of course, they usually don’t.

Moral of the story here is, if any brain cells pass out from the effort of language comprehension during my time abroad, it won’t be the serious cells. It will be the humor cells. Some stressful jokesters you’ve got there, Germany.

Have you ever blundered in a foreign language?

image via iStock